Jumping into the Deep End: Solving Problems and Changing Lives in Kenya
Seeing the world through a different lens
For many, Kenya conjures up images that you might see from the back of a guided safari jeep — maybe a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas (viewed safely from a distance), followed by one of the most magnificent sunsets on the planet. You might even picture — and hear — the famous opening sequence from The Lion King.
When Travis West, Bridge Connector’s Director of Product Management, travels to Kenya however, this has not been his experience. Travis makes a trip to Kenya annually, but he’s going to visit the HEVIS Center he started to make a difference in the lives of deaf and blind children in the area.
When Travis is not managing health care IT projects or leading a product development team, he has always enjoyed storytelling, video production and editing. And in his mind, the most gritty, “real” environment makes for the best storytelling. His first trip to Kenya in November 2016 was such an expedition, which led him to Babadogo, a slum of half a million people on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. This is an extremely impoverished area where entire families live on less than three dollars a day. A friend had invited him there to work on a documentary about a street artist named Stikky. But when traveling to a third world country, things often go wrong and Plan A becomes Plan B, which is exactly what happened to Travis.
Serendipity led him to meet Emmanuel Baraka, a local who wanted to help disabled children receive an education. Emmanuel is legally blind and well-understood the struggles that this population faces. Stigmas toward people with disabilities in Kenya, and all of sub-Saharan Africa, are deeply held, with access to education made worse due to the region’s poverty. In August 2016, Emmanuel had started a small “classroom” of disabled students which actually had to meet in the hallway of an existing school, after much coaxing with the principal. They were eventually kicked out though, and Emmanuel had been scrapping together funds to try and build their own school, which looked more like a framework of rebar and cement when Travis visited in November of that year. A small group of mothers met him at the site and gave a warm welcome, singing songs to him, as is custom for the area. Travis was moved by their hopefulness but immediately understood the underlying context — “We need your help.”
“I have a really bad habit of just jumping into the deep end of the pool,” said Travis, “not being sure if I can swim. But I kick hard. So I usually stay afloat long enough to figure it out. And that’s kind of how I live much of my personal and professional life, in many respects. So when I saw an opportunity to help, I just jumped in.”
One does not simply “start a ‘school’” in Africa
In January 2017, Travis started The HEVIS (Hearing Education Visually Impaired School) Center, with his new friend, Emmanuel.
A personal donation by Travis and his wife was followed by a Facebook video campaign which he shared with close family and friends, one couple of which in particular stepped up to help.
“They were instrumental in 2017 and helped a great deal financially and support-wise,” Travis said.
The original class of students consisted of seven deaf students and one blind student, but they quickly found ways to spread the word in the area, encouraging more families to send their children to class. Mothers were often unable to communicate with their children, or they felt shamed into isolating them inside the home, sometimes for years.
Without the proper resources and support from social circles, the community, or even their families, many children were left to learn what they could on their own.
In his work in health care, Travis was well-familiar with the concept of social determinants of health (SDoH). But in Babadogo, he had quickly unearthed the idea of social impediments to education — because you can’t very well teach students who can’t get to school, who maybe don’t have shoes or adequate clothing to walk to school, also fighting hunger, sub-standard housing and the expectation to help their mothers earn money to feed siblings… and so forth.
Thus, Travis had to apply his problem-solving philosophies in a 360-degree manner to HEVIS: To truly be a “school,” it had to also be a “center,” providing solutions for multiple problems.
HEVIS’s goals were expanded to:
1) Educate deaf and blind children alongside able-bodied students, grades K-12
2) Facilitate employment for graduating students, their families, and immediate communities
3) Create social change through a civic center
A fundraiser at the end of 2016 produced school desks during Christmas, with money left over to have a Christmas party. They gave the girls dresses for Christmas, and slacks for the boys.
Where they struggled most in 2017, according to Travis, was getting students to attend consistently. In a world where families live on three bucks a day, parents can be forced into difficult choices. And school doesn’t always win out over transportation issues — literally having to walk a disabled child to and from school, as opposed to using that time to find food or make money for the family.
“We couldn’t measure or evaluate how we were doing as a little startup school with sporadic attendance,” Travis said. This all set the groundwork for an eventual van purchase in 2018 to address the transportation issues, also hiring a driver.
BRIDGING THE JOURNEY WITH HOPE AND UNIFORMS
Another important development that occurred in mid-2018 was providing full school uniforms, complete with boots, belts and ties.
“We celebrated that with all the kids and their parents,” said Travis. “Parents dialed Emmanuel all night long to say how grateful they were for that. ‘My children have never had new clothing. They’ve never had a belt. They’ve never had shoes. My children have multiple pairs of socks now.’ School uniforms are a big, big deal in Kenya.”
By this point, Bridge Connector’s CEO, David Wenger, had heard about Travis’s school in Africa, and helped fund the uniforms.
“If our employees can work as hard as they do, and they’re doing amazing things to change the world outside of work? I want to help out and support in any way we can,” said David.
Additionally, a Bridge-sponsored Community Clean-Up Day took place on November 14.
“It was the first community event we wanted to do, and that needed to be a big splash as it’s one of the pillars in our mission statement,” said Travis.
It was a grand and public way to say, “The school is here to stay,” and further, that they want to bring about social change. Bridge Connector helped pay for all of the materials needed around the event — 70-80 red HEVIS t-shirts and other marketing materials, food and water, a garbage truck, clean-up workers, and city officials to sanction the actual event.
Monthly operating expenses started at about $700 that first year, then became around $1,000 in Year Two, once they were able to serve about 25 students consistently. When it became illegal for schools to discriminate against disabled students in October 2018, that number grew to 55 students. And they’re currently at 65.
Travis and his wife pay for all of the operating expenses each month, with some help from a couple of key family and friends. But “it can be a struggle to find consistent financial help from others,” he said.
2019 will mark further growth of HEVIS Logistics, which supports the goal to employ people connected to the school.
“We have 11 staff counting Emmanuel, a cook, and a driver. We realized we needed to start paying for all of these adults who had been volunteering their time,” said Travis. “We were all kind of sacrificing together, and Emmanuel had often been using his small stipend to pay for essentials like paper or for someone to drive the van.”
For some perspective about how important these additional services are to the students, picture the school’s cook, preparing big pots of rice and vegetables over a Bunsen burner type of contraption, sometimes including Ugali, a traditional meal made of boiled corn bread or “maze.” “We provide a big, hearty meal once a day to everyone there, and that’s usually the only meal they might eat all day,” said Travis.
Monthly operating expenses for 2019 come in at around $2,500 a month. This includes, for the first time, all of the teachers getting paid, and also allows for some after-school programs, drivers and gasoline.
Travis wrote about his college experience on LinkedIn: “I was studying to be a physics teacher but reality got in the way… I will someday teach.”
We’d say he’s already there.